Dec 29, 2011

Modeling Workshop and Revising Worksheets

This past summer I had the opportunity to attend one week of a three-week workshop in a physics teaching method known as Modeling Instruction. The workshop was a couple hours drive away, and I got a flat tire on the way down AND the way back (!!), but it was well worth it. The leader of the workshop knew Modeling inside and out, and graciously filled me in on some details about the weeks that I was missing. I probably wouldn't try to teach a Modeling course without attending the full three-week workshop, but this was a perfect introduction to whet my appetite for learning more about the method. I took so much away from the workshop I'll have to spread it out over multiple posts, but here are some thoughts I've been having in the meantime...

I've seen a few Physics First classes where Modeling is used, and all of them have used worksheets that are centered around solving classic quantitative problems (projectile motion problems, collisions, etc.). Most of these worksheets were developed a few years ago, out of the Modeling Instruction Program at Arizona State University. Many of these worksheets can be found on various websites, if you hunt around a bit, but the Modeling Instruction Program has taken pains to prevent them from being disseminated freely. On their own, the worksheets are a somewhat misleading "face" for the Modeling method, and the important aspects of Modeling as a curriculum are not in contained in these worksheets. However, when a physics teacher looks around for documentation about how to teach a Modeling class, these worksheets are often what they see. In fact, I've talked to teachers who use these worksheets as problems sets in their class, but lecture to their students in an otherwise totally conventional way. These teachers are missing the point of what makes Modeling special.

I've felt for a while that these worksheets do not reflect my own priorities for what should be emphasized in a course for ninth graders. Some are overly quantitative for the math level of many freshmen, and they do not overtly provide fuel for "conceptual" discussion. Let me clarify: a good teacher of Modeling can definitely emphasize the aspects of a problem that would be considered conceptual, but these aspects are not often emphasized in a given worksheet itself. But these particular worksheets do not have to be the worksheets used in a Modeling-based Physics First class. I feel that there is a lot of exciting work yet to be done developing curriculum materials to apply Modeling Instruction to a ninth grade level.

Some teachers in various parts of the country have taken on the task of revising these worksheets to be more age-appropriate for fourteen-year-olds. In particular, a password-protected page on the ASU Modeling Instruction site offers two sets of materials developed by teachers at at high school in Missouri and another in Pennsylvania. I've just started to look through these modified worksheets, but what I've seen is very exciting. You can get an idea of how the class works by checking out some of the whiteboards posted on one of these authors' page of whiteboards prepared by students in his Honors Freshman Physics class.  Unlike the worksheets mentioned above, whiteboarding IS central to the Modeling method - you can see some whiteboarding in action here.

I'm curious to what extent other teachers have undertaken their own attempts to "freshmanize" the modeling materials. Teachers new to the method may not feel experienced enough take on the task of making new worksheets themselves, and veteran modelers have probably developed effective ways to steer worksheet discussions where they'd like to go through class discussion. I have started to work out how materials I developed for my own class would fit into a modeling course, but I've only gotten so far… Perhaps, not too long from now, revised worksheets such as this will form the core of more Modeling workshops geared specifically for teachers of Physics First, and the Modeling materials that get used in ninth grade classes across the country will begin to shift.
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Dec 26, 2011

Happy Holidays, and THANKS to the Physics First listserv!

Happy Holidays! It's been a while since I posted last, and I apologize... I've been busy with some other things, including a nation-wide tour with a rock band that I've played in for a about 10 years now!! Here's a music video I made for one of our songs, in a case you'd like to check it out!! (If you look closely, you'll see a demonstration of blackbody radiation from a light bulb AND a glowing piece of 0.7mm mechanical pencil lead - it's amazing what 6A can do!!) In any case, sorry for the delay... I've got a lot to catch up on, so let's get started!

In the spring of last year, I had an opportunity to sit in on a few classes taught by a teacher who has been a great asset to the movement to popularize Physics First. This teacher maintains the Physics First listserv, an invaluable resource to all of us interested in seeing Physics First gain traction across the country. Many of the teachers I've observed for this blog I've found through the listserv. For as long as I've known about Physics First the listserv has consistently been a great hub of communication for educators and physics education researchers across the country, and even the world.

The school I visited is a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, on a beautiful campus surrounded by trees and open fields. I spent the better part of the day at the school, and sat in on quite a few different physics classes, as well as the school's weekly Quaker meeting. This teacher's teaching style was relaxed and comfortable, and students clearly felt at ease. They were studying wave motion, and after a few minutes of lecture on the topic, the entire class headed outdoors to measure the speed of wave pulses on large slinkies that the teacher had affixed to trees earlier in the day. When we returned to the room, I polled students (at his suggestion) with a simple prompt, to be answered anonymously: "Name three things that come to your mind when you think of this class." The students were honest, and the responses showed varied levels enthusiasm ("interesting concepts", "learning how things work", "too much math"), but taken together this poll was a nice window into the success of the Physics First program at this school.

In conversations with this teacher during my visit, I learned that last year was his final year of teaching. He had been at the school for decades, and has seen the Physics First program grow from its initial implementation in 1999. In my brief time at the school, I saw this teacher offer his time and experience to teachers and students time and time again - even giving up his free periods to help another teacher run the same waves on slinkies lab he had prepared earlier for his own class. This teacher had a presence at the school that will be sorely missed, and his ongoing contributions to the Physics First community are much appreciated.
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